Sexism at work
Where does sexism come from?
Definition: gender stereotypes
Preconceived ideas whereby females and males are arbitrarily assigned characteristics and roles determined and limited by their gender.
Gender stereotypes underpin sexist behaviour and practices. Gender stereotypes do not need to be hostile to be harmful. Many workplace realities have been shaped by the belief that women and men have complementary characteristics, for example that men are individualistic and dominant, while women are caring and collaborative.
However, stereotypically masculine characteristics are frequently valued more highly than stereotypically feminine characteristics (examples given below), although there is evidence this is changing. This is also true in the work context, where professional development books and programmes frequently urge women to stop displaying stereotypically feminine behaviour if they want to advance in their careers.
I think the problem, to a very large degree, is that women are expected to be men. When you find toughness in female leaders, it’s because there are too few of them and they really have to work for it, in a very stereotypical male way.
Margrethe Vestager, European Commissioner
We create predictions about what people will do based on what we have encountered in the world. These predictions can be based on direct experience, as well as on representations in society and culture. Our minds work like ‘predictive texters’ to create stereotypes. These are the past truths, half-truths and untruths that we have picked up to help us get on with life quickly.
We are ‘rule scavengers’, seeking out laws in society to determine what characteristics we should display to fit in. The determination to create rules results in confirmation bias, where information that fits in with preconceived ideas is readily accepted, but information that challenges our beliefs is ignored.
We all create stereotypes, which manifest themselves as unconscious bias. In fact, studies have shown that people who believe they are objective, or that they are not sexist, are less objective and more likely to behave in a sexist way.
Gender stereotypes were first catalogued in the United States in the 1970s. They were based on the characteristics reported as being the most socially desirable in women and men. Stereotypically feminine attributes included gullibility, shyness and compassion, while stereotypically masculine attributes included aggressiveness, independence and leadership ability.
Although societal expectations around how women and men should behave have evolved since the 1970s, our perceptions of stereotypically feminine and stereotypically masculine behaviours continue to inform our societies and work contexts. Yet no evidence has been found that the brains of women and men are wired differently.
Unconscious biases around gender can intersect with biases around other social variables such as: age, ethnicity, migration status, sexual orientation and disability. This can serve to further limit employees belonging to multiple stigmatised identity groups. Indeed, research has found that multiple intersecting stigmatised identities are a risk factor for greater job insecurity.